BY NATE GOSSE
This season already seems to be producing one of the tightest Calder races in recent memory. If present trends hold, voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association won't be asked to compare apples and oranges at season's end, they'll be asked to compare apples and oranges and bananas.
Halfway through the season, Los Angeles' Drew Doughty, Chicago's Kris Versteeg and Columbus' Steve Mason have separated themselves from the pack for Rookie of the Year honors. That's a three-way race between a defenseman, a forward and a goalie.
For those not familiar with the difficulties that arise when comparing players across different positions, take a look at the arguments in the “greatest player of all time” debate arising from the Gretzky and Orr camps and see for yourself how irreconcilable, yet legitimate, those differences of opinion are.
Judging the offensive production of Versteeg against the impressive save percentage and goals-against statistics of Mason to the maturity, poise and ice-time of Doughty is no easy task. Nobody ever hopes for players to fail, but it sure would make the lives of a few writers a little easier if two of the top three freshmen let up a little.
Putting aside players such as Mikhail Grabovski and Patrik Berglund - who both have the potential to put up big second half numbers - the decision could be further complicated if this year's dark horse, Blake Wheeler, is allowed to break into full stride.
The Boston rookie has so far been overshadowed by the impressive play of sophomore David Krejci, who has 41 points in 39 games. Wheeler, though, quietly rang in the New Year by grabbing hold of the rookie goal scoring lead with 13. However, goals alone don’t tell Wheeler’s story.
First off, he is a whopping plus-22. Forget about crushing other rookies in that department, that's third in the entire league. What's even more impressive is the paltry ice-time he's accomplished it in.
Wheeler sits 28th in ice-time amongst rookie forwards, averaging just 12:43 per game. To put that in perspective, Andreas Nodl, with his four points and minus-10 rating in 25 games with Philadelphia, is averaging more shifts per game than Wheeler.
Hardly any of Wheeler's ice time has come on the power play, where he's averaged just 36 seconds per game (compare that to the 3:21 Berglund sees each game or the 2:14 Versteeg gets).
Wheeler’s bid for the Calder is hurt because he doesn’t see enough playing time to make his case. If things change, however, and Wheeler starts seeing the type of ice time Versteeg receives (leading all rookie forwards with 17:46 per game), or is given more power play time, hairs could split four ways when voting time rolls around at season's end.
Whatever happens, there are going to be a lot of fans from two - or three - cities who feel their rookie was snubbed for the Calder this year. And it might be difficult to disagree with any of them.
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